France is finally on the verge of a national mobilization capable of bringing the country to its knees: the gilets jaunes movement, which began primarily as a revolt against diesel taxes in rural and suburban areas. It is a fitting movement for the Macron era, since like the the president himself has characteristically claimed to be, it is neither obviously of the left nor obviously of the right. If we are to believe the videos that have gone viral in support of the national blocages this Saturday, it is a movement of non-aligned citizens of modest means that have been left to struggle with increased costs of living while Emmanuel eliminates taxes on the ultra-wealthy and Brigitte gets a fancy new set of dishes at the Elysée Palace.
For Macron’s opponents, the relationship to the gilets jaunes is complicated. It is often assumed that the movement is susceptible to co-optation by the far right, an assumption that is informed by the experience of Poujadism and other historical French anti-tax revolts. Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National have endorsed the movement, and there is good reason to think she might have the most to benefit from it. She has nonetheless been careful to hedge her bets, announcing that she will not personally attend the protests. She may rightly worry that her and her party’s presence at the rally would serve to discredit the expression of popular anger—République en Marche minister Marlène Schiappa has notably sought to link the two together wholesale—and thus prefer to keep her distance. For Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France insoumise, the calculus is even more delicate. On the one hand, it is clearly bad form for any leader on the French left to support a movement that is both anti-tax and anti-environmentalist. On the other hand, no self-respecting left populist could afford to dismiss a self-proclaimed expression of popular anger against an elitist presidency. The gilets jaunes rally is a perfect opportunity to put to the test the vision of left-wing populism as a viable competitor with right-wing populism as a champion of the people: as Mélenchon put it, there may be fachos present, but more importantly it is a movement of fachés. La France insoumise has therefore not thrown its full weight behind the protests, but has encouraged individual members to attend if they so choose. Only Laurent Wauquiez, the most in need of “populist” credibility among the main opposition leaders, has pledged to attend in person.
Le Monde‘s assessment of the gilets jaunes channels Tocqueville, comparing Macron’s presidency to the “centralization” of the ancien régime under Louis XVI (“Tocqueville fustigeait les régimes centralisés car ils aboutissent « à détruire tous les pouvoirs intermédiaires » de sorte qu’entre eux « et les particuliers, il n’existe plus rien qu’un espace immense et vide »“). The implication appears to be that Macron’s razing of the political landscape, his marginalization of intermediary bodies, and his placement of himself at the center of everything has created a potentially revolutionary situation in France today. But in order for the gilets jaunes—a leaderless movement with no ties to traditional centers of social movements such as unions or political parties—to fundamentally change French politics, their anger will have to be channeled into a more structured form. Whether that will be one of the more familiar opposition movements or an entirely new political formation, perhaps analogous to Italy’s Five Star Movement, is the main question to be asking during this weekends blocages.